How Dating Came to Suck So Much
In her new book, "Labor of Love," Moira Weigel examines the long, capitalist history of hanging out with someone you might want to have sex with.
Photo by Boris Jovanovic via Stocksy
I know few people who consider dating fun. I don't need to list the reasons why; I've never used Tinder, but I know it's a bad, upsetting place. How it got this way, though, is another matter. While many articles lament the end of courtship, traditional dating, etc., few explain what "traditional dating" is, where it came from, and why it's morphed into a culture that relies too much on whether you ironically enjoy the same TV shows as someone who is lying about his height on the Internet.
In her new book Labor of Love, writer Moira Weigel set out to explain all of this (and more!), charting the history of sex, romance, and courtship from the turn of the 20th century. Throughout the (very cool) book, she weaves contemporary cultural criticism into evolving ideas about feminism and women's agency, work, and, of course, capitalism. A brief summary: The tedious process of dating and critiquing the ways we date has been going on for a long time. Last week I sat down with Weigel—some might say we had a lunch "date"—to talk about how the Internet has and has not affected dating culture, whether we're all pawns in the capitalist system, and why the language of love has come to sound so much like the language of work.
BROADLY: Where did the idea for this book come from?
Moira Weigel: It came from a lot of places. It came from my dating experience, this feeling that I joke about in the book. In my mid-to-late 20s, I had this feeling of having been in all these different relationships and having this sense that I had no idea what I wanted from any of them. We have all these ideas of how we're supposed to be. Where do those even come from?
I realized that all these things I was doing intellectually, professionally, romantically—it was always about being wanted by a man or being approved of by a man. What I wanted never occurred to me. It was like, I need to find a partner and I need to go to grad school and do all these things. Maybe that's my private neurosis, but I feel like there is a lot of social pressure that makes women feel that way.
Also, I was reading all these articles and trend pieces that were [declaring] the end of men, the end of sex, the end of courtship. I was like, wait a minute: What does that even mean? Do you think the world is going to end [because of this]? Being somebody who studies history, I was very skeptical about those doomsday claims. Another thing that I noticed about those articles is they're always saying, "Traditional dating is dead—now we use cell phones," but what even is traditional dating? They never define it. I was also getting increasingly interested in feminist theory and feminism, and often that kind of panic [about the end of traditional dating] is used to reinforce really conservative ideas about gender roles. I just wanted to approach all this with a skeptical attitude. These hadn't seemed like legitimate questions to think about intellectually when I was younger.
And today there is this new social pressure, for women to be self-actualized and independent and empowered. I think that idea sort of relates to your argument that the history of dating has been shaped by capitalism.
Now we can work for the man instead of one particular man. I'm very suspicious about that slippery slope and the kind of Sheryl Sandberg feminism where it's like, you are "empowered" to work all the time—you can be empowered to buy anything you want or to work all the time. It's like, what if I want to be empowered to just be a human by myself at home for a while?
How do you think empowerment feminism affects the current dating culture, and specifically apps like Tinder?
One thing that's striking to me is the ways in which work has colonized every aspect of life. There was this piece in the New York Times that people quote all the time, called "Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too." A source in it says something like, "I positioned myself in college such that I didn't have time to invest in a relationship." How depressing! Neither the anti-feminist camp nor the empowered feminist camp assign value to women's pleasure and desire—it's like sex is this thing to check off a list so that you can work all the time.
I think online dating culture can also encourage efficiency as the goal. It's like, oh, we can just 3D-print your perfect mate if you spend enough time on our site generating revenue for us. It's just the opposite of love. I think that logic has everything to do with making money for apps and nothing to do with happiness.
Do you feel like romance has declined as a result?
What was most striking to me about my research is that people have been saying [that romance is dead] from the very beginning. In the early 1900s, people were totally scandalized [when people began dating]. All these people around WWI were like, the romance of a young man calling on a young woman is over, it's so terrible that these young people are "going out." In the 20s and 30s, the trend is "the big dance"—you go [to a party] and dance with a lot of people. Then in the 40s and 50s, you start going steady and kids start having the one boyfriend or girlfriend. People are totally standardized then, too. All these Catholic schools kicked kids out if they found out they were going steady.
How do you define dating for the purposes of this book? There's dating as in courtship, and then there's dating as in going on a date, which you can do with someone you've been with for a long time.
It's really hard to define the boundary. In the book, dating is by definition ambiguous. I also think it's really funny how people use the word relationship. I'm totally guilty of this—I had a good friend I was sleeping with in grad school, and he sort of wanted to be together, and I was like, oh, no, it's not a relationship. And he would respond that we spend all our time together, we like each other, and we're sleeping together. He was right.
I think in a weird way the preciousness around that word is used to devalue it, actually—it's kind of conservative in a weird way. Wouldn't it be better to just [acknowledge that] there are many kinds of relationships and intimacy? A one-night stand is a relationship; it puts you in relation to someone.
It's like sex is this thing to check off a list so that you can work all the time.
How do you think the Internet and the way people interact on it has changed the way we date?
Someone was telling me about a GIF that seems really mean-spirited: It's just the three dots [that denote someone is typing on an iPhone], and you can text it to someone and it looks like you're typing at them forever.
That's very psychological.
Totally. In the book I joke about how the genius of AOL and these other early Internet providers was to figure out how to use the desire for love and sex to make everyone addicted to the Internet, because all those emotions become attached to the device. You think of the levels of emotion that your iPhone can elicit from you when you're waiting [for a text]—it's totally wrapped up in how we get addicted to these technologies. The older version would be like waiting for the phone to ring.
Sometimes on Twitter there will be a joke that goes, basically, "tfw you fave my tweet but don't respond to my text," or whatever.
I have this friend who's a student from China who studies at Yale. She's this great student, and so straight-laced. We were talking one night at dinner, and she had gone on a date and was like, he hasn't responded to my text! I was like, maybe he's working, and she said, "He tweeted. I don't even follow him on Twitter and I know that." I was like, if this like brilliant engineering student who seems so serious is like this, everyone is like this.
That could also be about wanting to be wanted; you don't really hear men complaining about women not texting back.
One thing I've had a lot of straight male friends talk about is being addicted to Tinder—playing Tinder like a video game. I feel like maybe there's less of a culture of dissecting text messages together, but I certainly know straight men who [freak out about it].
In the book, you talk about how, at the turn of the century, women started going to work and immediately had so much more access to men than they had before. The Internet seems to have done something similar, but it created an overwhelming, basically endless number of options—something better could always be out there. I find that very limiting, but it also seems to drive a lot of people.
It's both good and bad. In German there's this phrase, die Qual der Wahl, which means "the torture of choice." On the other hand, the reality of casually infinite choice is really great for various reasons: if you're a divorced person trying to get back into the market, for example. I think there are very real benefits, which I think sometimes don't get acknowledged enough. But yeah, it definitely makes it harder for some people to commit.
Do you have any thoughts on "date nights" in long-term relationships?
I'm fascinated by date nights. Another movie I mention in the book is Date Night with Steve Carrell and Tina Fey, which is not a very good movie. It's about this boring couple—they live in Jersey and don't have sex anymore, blah blah blah—and they have this date night that goes insanely awry. They go to a fancy restaurant, and there's a mix-up; they take the wrong table and get in with gangsters. They end up getting pulled into the climactic event of the movie: She has to impersonate a prostitute and he has to impersonate a pimp. It was like if the date was a [literal] transaction—there's something exciting about this movie that exactly rehearses all these ideas about dating: It's about being in public, it's about being able to perform a certain version of yourself. This weird transactional element that makes people uncomfortable is also kind of titillating.
I also wonder if part of going out is being sexy among other people. It's always kind of exciting if someone else flirts with your partner at a party, or if someone is flirting with you. And at some point I was reading about date nights as part of like some city initiative in which they were treating them like restaurant week. This city was promoting date nights as this engine of the economy so it is also still tied up in all those forces—you need date night so people will go out and buy stuff.
How did you envision the tone of the book? It doesn't read as anti-dating, but it does position dating as part of a capitalist system and the dater as a pawn in that capitalist system.
We are all so deeply embedded in these systems; it's very hard to find a space that isn't enclosed. But I do think clarity about these systems is really helpful—at least clarity about the situation makes you feel freer to act or not act on certain desires. We are all tied up in capitalism for the time being, but I do believe that love is like a lifeline, or like a line of escape [from capitalism]—that there's something not capturable.